Editorial: How to be an impactful governor

The Detroit News
Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer.

Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer has an opportunity to impact Michigan’s place in 21st-century America and become one of our transformative leaders. Surely she must begin by fixing the “damn roads,” a campaign promise that looms large. But while roads are important, they are not the key to our future.

Business leaders and economists have literally shouted that Michigan’s ability to attract and create high-paying jobs for ourselves and our children will rest on one factor: talent. Our prosperity will depend on the number of men and women in the workforce who have skills currently in demand, and the ability to learn new skills as needed. Gov. Rick Snyder often points to the estimated 115,000 good paying jobs available in the state, which employers are struggling to fill.

Preparing the next generation for these jobs requires a public education system designed to help our children thrive in high-skill, high-wage workplaces.

The education challenge confronting Whitmer resembles building a new plane while flying it. Most immediately, we need better results from our schools as they are currently organized. Based on what we heard from experts across Michigan and the nation during our yearlong “Fixing Michigan Schools” series, that will require relentless alignment of ends and means.

Lawmakers should also get on board with this work, and it’s the perfect opportunity for bipartisan solutions between a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature.

We do recognize the challenges governors in this state face when it comes to impacting schools. As one of only a few states that doesn’t give the governor control over the State Board of Education (and consequently the Education Department), it is difficult to implement meaningful change. Snyder learned this the hard way.

But other states have demonstrated what works, and our new elected leaders should learn from them. High-performing states such as Massachusetts and those achieving the greatest academic growth such as Tennessee and Florida have done it by making sure the following reinforce each other: state achievement goals; curriculum defining what must be learned; materials and classroom activities that enable teachers to translate those goals into student learning; and high-quality training of teachers and principals to be able to use those materials effectively.

With Michigan’s legacy of education local control, public schools lack this level of alignment to get better results in reading, math, writing and science. Most individual school districts and charter networks don't have the scale and know-how to create such aligned systems. Launch Michigan, the new business/labor collaborative aimed at improving schools, could help with that task.

The highly competitive businesses in our state are demanding employees who know how to analyze problems, think critically and creatively, work together in teams and communicate what they are doing — skills that the traditional school model is not designed to teach.

Districts willing and able to innovate on their own will need state assessment waivers to move beyond standardized bubble tests to measure new-century student skills.

Building our next education system on the fly must be accompanied by creating access for existing workers to high-wage skills. Tennessee Reconnect might offer a good model. This new state program covers tuition and fees for those already in the workforce who have not earned a college degree to go to community college to either finish a degree or acquire an occupation certificate in a field of their choice.

Michigan will begin 2019 with a new governor. Gretchen Whitmer's opportunity for transforming Michigan rests with a bold and innovative vision for its schools.